One of the recurring ironies of the migration debate is that alongside the political rhetoric and public concerns about the UK having too many foreign workers, employers are generally very keen to encourage them to work in the UK, to fill vacancies and to promote growth. MigrationWork members, Anna Reisenberger and Rachel Marangozov, have written this piece on the debate.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has revealed more about employers’ thinking in their new report The State of Migration: Employing Migrant Workers. The conclusions are based on a survey of over 1000 public, private and voluntary sectors employers, followed up with some in depth interviews.

Some of the findings seem to puncture common assumptions. For instance, over half of their migrant workers come from the old EU countries, but only 14% from the newer EU members who joined in 2004; and 30% came from outside the EU. Also, 71% of employers said that the good availability of migrant workers had no impact on wages at their organisations. Only eight per cent said it had a downward pressure and an equal proportion actually said it had an upward impact on wages. The remaining employers either did not know or said it did not apply to them.

The report also deals a blow to the assumption that migrant workers compete with UK-born workers for the same jobs. Rather, findings point to migrant workers filling skills shortages and hard-to-fill vacancies.

Over half the employers recruit EU workers because they have better skill levels and consistently stress that they have better work ethic than UK-born workers. In interviews, many employers said the high turnover of UK workers was a major reason for recruiting elsewhere. They also cited the poor image and unattractive pay and conditions that some sectors like care, catering and retailing have for UK job hunters, and employers’ failure to “sell” them the training and promotion opportunities these sectors can offer.

Organisations employing non-EU migrants placed less emphasis on their work ethic and more on their skills. Coming to the UK to work from outside the EU is increasingly limited to highly skilled workers and is very difficult for lower skilled workers. Many employers with migrant workers said they were frustrated by UKBA bureaucracy, including having to comply with complex audit and inspection regimes, with little feedback on all the evidence they need to provide. The CIPD makes several recommendations to policy-makers to relax some of the more onerous bureaucratic requirements.

And yet one of the key questions which remains is: why, at a time of high structural unemployment in the UK, especially among young people and unskilled workers, do employers still find it difficult to recruit and retain staff, and so have to, or prefer to employ migrants? The CIPD recommendations attempt to address this by suggesting that employers take a more long-term view: ensuring there are progression routes; exploring the business case for investing in young people, and for a more diverse workforce generally; and looking at the risk of relying on too narrow a source of labour. There is evidence that this has already started to happen: about a third of the employers, who feel that new regulations will affect their recruitment of non-EU migrants, plan to upskill existing workers as well as recruit more EU workers. One in five will recruit more graduates.

However, this longer-term approach should not be driven by restricting employers’ recruitment of migrant workers and curbs on international student visas; UK employers still clearly need migrant workers and Higher Education represents an £8 billion industry. Neither should this long-term approach overshadow the need to invest in all workers in order to ensure that the economy as a whole benefits from all the skills and talents at its disposal.
Results from recent MigrationWork projects have confirmed the value of investing in, and making the most of human capital among migrant workers as well as UK-born workers. Data from across European countries confirms consistently that migrants are more likely than members of the host community to become unemployed in an economic downturn, and that most migrants in employment (particularly women) are overqualified for the jobs they do. The European Agenda on Integration of Third country Nationals 2011, to which all EU governments have signed up, suggests that this “under-utilised resource and waste of human capital” could be addressed by measures such as: developing better public recruitment services; recognition of skills and training; and encouraging migrant entrepreneurship and self-employment. It is clear that, eight years on from the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy, it is still the case that “sustainable growth and employment are Europe’s most pressing goals”. (European Parliament, midterm review of the Lisbon Strategy, March 2005.)

MigrationWork, with our European partners, have investigated good practice in this area in several countries and ways it can be successfully mainstreamed. IMPART, a three year project across 12 countries, found that innovative projects, aimed at improving the employment of migrants, could be mainstreamed more effectively by engaging employers more. This would include making the business case for recruiting migrants, not just to address skills shortages but to strengthen the customer base. Another finding was that the formal recognition of migrants’ competences would enable migrants to contribute more, by getting jobs that reflect their abilities and experiences. Also, employment projects aimed at engaging migrants are likely to have more sustained impact if their ‘target group’ has a voice in how they are designed and run.

Such work highlights the fact that tight labour markets rely on the successful utilisation of, and investment in all workers, and how limited discussions around ‘them and us’ are, particularly in an increasingly globalised labour market.

At the CIPD launch there was also discussion about the mixed messages being given out by politicians – is the UK “open for business”, does it welcome migrants as part of a diverse workforce that contributes to innovation and growth, or are politicians so concerned about public opinion that they are dissuading the very people we need to attract to make Britain more competitive? For example, is it consistent to promote the value of studying in Britain to Indian students while at the same time including student visas in the UK’s cap on net migration? In an era when countries increasingly compete to attract the best and the brightest, as well as the less highly skilled workers needed in their respective economies, one of the unanswered questions is how successful the UK will be in maintaining such a balancing act.

Finally, at the launch IPPR cited some of their emerging research, which suggests that public attitudes can also be inconsistent. On the one hand people are worried about numbers of migrants, on the other, people are positive about migrants who settle and integrate, learning the language and culture. All of which is of course more likely to happen, when they have equal access to decent jobs. The CIPD launch showed clear consensus that the nature of the debate needs to change. Perhaps one way to start would be to promote a more integrated labour market, by making sure that the training initiatives helpfully proposed by CIPD are inclusive, not divisive.